Cronkite School interns win award for USA Today multimedia investigative series

Cassondra Strande (Marianna Hauglie/DD)
Cassondra Strande (Marianna Hauglie/DD)
Journalism senior Cassondra Strande contributed to a USA Today multimedia investigative project that won a prestigious Alfred I. duPont – Columbia University Award. (Marianna Hauglie/DD)

Three alumnae and one current student of the Walter Cronkite School are part of a team of USA Today reporters that won a prestigious Alfred I. duPont – Columbia University Award.

Their work investigated the long-term effects of former lead smelting sites in communities across the country. The stories were compiled into a multimedia series called Ghost Factories: Poison in the Ground that was published in April.

Ghost Factories comprises several video pieces and a wealth of print stories along with photos, graphics and interactive maps tied to a database of information gathered by the USA Today team.

The investigation focused on exploring the sites of former lead smelting factories, relics that had been in operation between 1930 and 1970 but which had since closed. Some of the sites were simply abandoned and are still decaying today, but many of the factories were demolished to their foundations, which were then built over as the communities around them expanded. Schools and neighborhoods now sit atop soil that once supported massive smelters.

The USA Today team worked to establish a database of every known former smelting site in the country, educating citizens about the areas in which they lived and spurring action on the part of municipal authorities that had been aware of the potentially hazardous sites but had remained silent and inactive as urban growth slowly overtook the old foundations.

The team, which was lead by Alison Young and Peter Eisler, included more than 40 digital media specialists, editors and reporters.

Two Cronkite school alumnae, Shannon Rae Green and Maxine Park, worked on the project as video professionals for USA Today. Samantha Valtierra Bush and Cassondra Strande worked alongside them as interns. Bush graduated in December 2012, while Strande is currently a senior.

Strande said she learned a lot working on a team of seasoned video reporters. They edited hours of footage that eventually became the video pieces in the series.

Bush worked with a group of media specialists within the larger team, scanning maps and integrating content across several information platforms. She said it was a privilege to learn from some of the best at USA Today, which is well-known for their rich media integration.

Samantha Bush (Courtesy of Denny Gainer)
Samantha Bush was one of three Cronkite School alumnae who worked on the award-winning USA Today project. The series investigated the effects of lead smelting sites across the country. (Courtesy of Denny Gainer)

Bush, an intern for the Dallas Morning News who will start as a mobile developer for the Arizona Republic in April, said her new job would have been out of her reach if not for the skills she acquired working on Ghost Factories.

Both Bush and Strande said the best part of participating in such a large-scale project was working alongside skilled journalists to make a contribution toward a larger effort. They felt like their budding skills were used to make a difference.

“I mean, as a journalist, everyone always wants to do something big,” Strande said.

Mark Lodato, assistant dean at the Cronkite School, said he was very proud of the work the two interns had contributed to the project.

The Alfred I. duPont – Columbia University Awards have been recognizing outstanding examples of multimedia journalism with a significant social impact since 1942, when they were established by Jessie Ball duPont in honor of her husband.

Ghost Factories also won an Associated Press Media Editors Journalism Excellence Award and an award from the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, which is based at the Cronkite School.

Correction: March 8, 2013

A previous version of this article said Samantha Bush is a mobile developer at the Arizona Republic. She is currently an intern for the Dallas Morning News and will start her job at the Arizona Republic in April.

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